Thursday, 26 June 2014

Book review: Edith & I

world-map albania


The Missing Link is finished and the summer is upon us and therefore my postings on UTM are liable to be somewhat erratic as camping trips and mini expeditions intervene. This post is a day early for example, as my brother and I are off to travel the A470 this weekend. “A470? What on earth is that?” I hear you ask. Ah well, the A470 is the Route 66 of Wales, the only road which spans the entire length of the country without actually dipping into England. There’s even been songs written about it.

Nothing is so heavenly,

As travelling on the A470

I get a funny tingle when I go up the spine of Wales.

I catch my breath and smile a lot

When I think about just how much we’ve got

I only wish the journey quicker than a flight to Istanbul.

Ok, so not quite Lennon/McCartney but you get the idea. That’s this weekend and the weekend after I’m off with my son to see the Tour de France in, erm.. Yorkshire. Well, why not, particularly when they’ve the best railway museum in the world nearby with a bullet train, the Mallard, the Rocket and a whole lot more.

So, this blog may become erratic and so until things cool down again, here are a few stand alone postings, starting with another book review, ‘Edith & I’ which is all about Edith Durham, the most famous explorer of Albania and a great inspiration and gude to my brilliant 2009 Albania and Kosova trip.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Edith & I: On the Trail of an Edwardian Traveller in Kosovo

Elizabeth Gowing


When I chanced upon a book on the shelves of Waterstones in Birmingham detailing the travels of one modern Englishwoman following in the footsteps of Mary Edith Durham a century before then I just knew that I had to buy it. Ever since reading ‘High Albania’, Durham’s account of her 1908 journey through Northern Albania and Kosovo, I have found her inspirational. Durham was one of that special breed of Britishers who go to an exotic land, explore it and record it and promote it and in the process become beloved by the population and remembered by them whilst being virtually unknown back home. In Bulgaria there was Mercia MacDermott and in Japan Walter Weston, but for the Albanians it will always be Durham, Mbretëresha e Malësoreve, Queen of the Highlanders. But that is Durham, the question is, does Gowing have anything worthwhile to say?

Edith_durham (1)

In all honesty, I found this book mixed. In some areas it is excellent. Gowing is thorough in her research and discovers a lot about her heroine. We meet the surviving members of her family, the descendent of her Albanian guide, check out the ethnographic mementoes she brought back from her travels and speculate on her sexuality, fashion sense and motherly instincts. All well and good and I loved it, even if the image of Durham that came out at the end was rather unlike the one that I had fashioned in my mind from her book. Which is a shame since I based one of my favourite literary creations, the indomitable Mary Jane Hartley on her and now I realise that the two are quite different.

So, if she researches Durham so well, then what’s my issue? Well, I guess my problem lies in the researcher and not the research. The thing is, (and maybe this is just me), but my feeling is that she just doesn’t ‘get’ Edith. She knows the facts and she checks out the places and people but she just doesn’t really understand. Edith Durham was an anthropologist at heart whose primary aim was to record the culture and traditions of one of the most remote corners of Europe. In Gowing though, there is nothing anthropological. True, she helps out at the Ethnographic Museum in Pristina and helps set up a collective of filigree workers, but she never talks about the filigree in detail, classifies it, compares it to other filigree in neighbouring districts and speculates on why it is so popular and refined an art form in those parts.

It’s the ‘compare’ bit actually that gets me. I’m a big believer that if you want to know a culture, you have to explore around it rather than just in it. For example, to understand England you need to know something of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, France and even the Low Countries also. Gowing’s passion is Kosovo; she lives there and she loves it and that’s the problem, for Edith Durham was no lover of Kosovo, she was a devotee of the Balkans with a specific affection for the Albanian people. And that is where Gowing really fails, for Edith’s travels were focussed around all the Albanian lands, but particularly the highlands of Northern Albania. The plain of Kosovo is an afterthought yet read ‘Edith & I’ and you’d think that it was all about Kosovo and Kosovo alone. Only one chapter is devoted to Albania, a country that Gowing clearly does not know and, more worryingly, doesn’t seem that interested in beyond chatting to people whose ancestors met Durham.

Oh dear, this book could have been so much more! Edith Durham was political; she championed the Albanian cause against that of the Serb and the Turk. I would have loved to have heard Gowing’s musings on what Durham would have thought on the modern-day politics of the region. Would she have approved of Kosovan independence or would she have been horrified that Albania was now split into two countries? Yet sadly, these issues were not even looked at.

Not that it was all bad though. There’s a great description of a bus journey through Kosovo and I applaud the work Gowing has done with various charities there. But whilst she gets the facts, she does not get the soul. The most infuriating line for me came when she was checking out the monastery at Deçan and commented, “Of our party, each of us went to our private devotions; I walked around in an atheist’s equivalent of prayer, checking against my guidebook, looking up, staring meditatively.” That my dear, I am afraid to say, is nowhere near akin to prayer, atheist or otherwise. It is plain and simple sightseeing; I should know, I’ve done a lot of both. But then unless you ‘get’ it, then you wouldn’t see the difference now, would you?

Mary Edith Durham on the other hand, I suspect, would.

20th February, 2014

Smallthorne, UK

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